A few years ago, Ian Mortimer wrote a blog post for The Guardian titled "Ten of the Worst Years in British History." This list of uniquely awful 12-month periods included 1348, when the Black Death finally arrived on British shores, and 1848, when hundreds of thousands of people perished in the Irish potato famine. The last year on the list is 1940, which Mortimer describes as follows: "In January rationing started. By May, the German invasion of France had forced British troops back to Dunkirk. Auschwitz opened for its horrific business. Dozens of British warships were sunk by the German navy. The Channel Islands were occupied. And the Battle of Britain started: the Luftwaffe bombed London, Sheffield, Coventry, Plymouth and other cities in southern England. London was hit every night for 57 consecutive nights, and on 29 December more than 100,000 incendiary bombs struck the city."
Joe Wright's aptly titled Darkest Hour takes place right in the middle of the terrible year of 1940-from May 10, when beleaguered Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned amid growing criticism of his handling of European unrest and the encroachment of Nazi Germany, and June 18, when Winston Churchill, having replaced Chamberlain to the chagrin of many, delivered his infamous "finest hour" speech to the House of Commons and fully committed the country to war with Germany, despite its standing virtually alone at the time. Describing the speech, a prominent character in the films says, "He mobilized the English language-and sent it into battle."
Wright's film, which was scripted by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), focuses primarily on Churchill (Gary Oldman), whose blustery leadership style, intense commend of rhetoric, and unrelenting sense of commitment to the defense of England in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversaries made him a uniquely equipped leader at a most desperate time. The film's drama hinges largely on whether or not England will commit to war with Germany or cut some kind of peace agreement, with Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini acting as the go-between. The ruling Conservative Party's first pick for Chamberlain's replacement, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), turns down the position, suggesting that it is "not the right time," which opens the door for Churchill, who had only minimal support from his own party and none from the opposing party, and who struck fear in the heart of the King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Although McCarten's screenplay attempts to develop a meaningful sense of connection between Churchill and his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), who knew going into their marriage that she would always come second to her husband's public life, the film's most moving human connection is between Churchill and King George, the latter of whom accepts his new Prime Minister with a sense of wariness that eventually gives way to the respectful understanding that Churchill was the only man in a position to argue for the impossible. It is a portrait of two very different men recognizing a shared sensibility and making it work.
Darkest Hour marks the return of director Joe Wright, whose last film was the poorly received big-budget adventure-fantasy Pan (2015), to the lavish historical drama, where he first gained international attention with films such as Pride & Prejudice (2005), the multi-Oscar-nominated romantic drama Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012). Darkest Hour unfolds largely inside stately rooms (10 Downing Street and the smoke-choked backrooms of Parliament dominating), with a few key scenes taking place in the London streets. One wholly fictionalized sequence takes place in the London Underground, where Churchill emerges from his protective cocoon and briefly mixes with a cross-section of subway-riding everyday people to get a sense of where they stand; it is without doubt the film's most forced and dramatically false scene. Working for the first time with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amlie, Inside Llewyn Davis), Wright infuses the film with as much style as it can hold without becoming unduly bloated. Highly stylized lighting is a constant, but it works within the contest of the film's history-defining drama.
Not surprisingly, Gary Oldman's chameleonic performance as Churchill is getting the most attention, and it is an impressive turn that dutifully embodies a familiar public figure without devolving into simple mimicry. Buried in by Kazuhiro Tsuji's extensive make-up and latex, Oldman is all but unrecognizable, which makes it that much easier to forget that we're watching a great actor deliver a great performance. He has some aptly humorous moments, such as his stormy introduction to his new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), in his bedroom, where he holds court from his bed and inadvertently flashes her when he rolls out unexpectedly. There is also a wonderfully humorous moment when Elizabeth conveys to him that the "victory" sign he thought he flashed to a press photographer was actually a vulgar gesture. As a whole, though, Churchill is treated with a great deal of reverence-not so much as an unassailable historical figure, but rather as a determined man who had the wherewithal to stick to his convictions when virtually everyone else said otherwise. He is hardly flawless, and the film's best scenes are the ones designed to remove the icon from his symbolic pedestal and remind us that he was a human being whose particular gifts happened to be exactly what England needed in middle of that most awful year.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3)
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